Sunday, Aug. 07, 2022|
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With support from Gov. David Ige and the state Legislature, all systems are go for a $50 million upgrade to make Kona International Airport ready to welcome international commercial flights again.
The state supplemental budget passed Wednesday by the House Finance Committee includes the money to build a federal inspection station, as reflected in Ige’s suggested budget. The upgrade is needed because the inspection station was closed since it did not meet the U.S. Customs and Border Protection technical design standards.
The budget bill goes to the full House next week for its consideration.
Two bills that would allow for bond financing, Senate Bill 2933 and House Bill 2404, are on track with unanimous support as they await their final committees.
The Hawaii County Council tried to nudge the process along March 2 by unanimously passing a nonbinding resolution urging the bills be passed.
Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, sponsor of the county resolution, said he expects the money to be made available because the airport upgrade helps not only Hawaii Island, but the state as a whole.
Honolulu International Airport is the only airport in the state handling international commercial passengers, Onishi said. If something happened at Honolulu, there is no backup airport for passengers to embark or disembark.
The county asked for the money last year, but because the state already was committing to a $90 million courthouse in Kona, lawmakers were reluctant to also grant the money for the airport.
“Hopefully, the Legislature will pass it this year,” Onishi said, “and I think they will.”
The number of Japanese visitors staying only on Hawaii Island dropped 17 percent in 2014, compared to 2010, the last time Japan Airlines brought a direct flight to the island. The state Department of Transportation in Feb. 4 testimony estimated adding the inspection station would pump $113 million annually into Hawaii Island’s economy.
“Enhancing the Kona airport is essential to tourism and growth for Kona, and therefore a priority,” state Sen. Josh Green, a West Hawaii Democrat, said Wednesday.
Mayor Billy Kenoi and state officials unsuccessfully tried to get a five-year exemption from meeting security standards at the airport in order to reopen the international inspection facility.
At issue is the airport’s design, featuring iconic tiki-hut style outdoor passenger holding areas that convey a Hawaiian atmosphere, but do little to address U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s security concerns. A stone and tent-like structure has in the past processed travelers coming from international destinations.
A temporary practice of having charter flights reimburse Customs for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway there was ended by the agency in 2012.
The state and Hawaii’s congressional delegation also appealed to Homeland Security to increase preclearance of international travelers at some departure ports such as Narita, Japan, a common departure point for flights to Hawaii.
Onishi said the deal with Homeland Security is for the state to build the new structure and the Transportation Security Administration would staff it. He said he met with key officials on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., seeking their commitment to continue that arrangement.
Council Chairman Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona, said he hopes progress continues for getting the funding.
“It’s been going on year after year,” Kanuha said about the county’s attempts to get the money and bring international travelers back.
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